TEXT: Philemon 17-25; 2 Corinthians 5:17-19
This is our fourth and last week in Philemon, a short letter found in the New Testament, from the Apostle Paul to his friend and Christian leader, Philemon. In the past three weeks we have looked at several aspects of this letter. The first week we looked at the exemplary character of Philemon, whom Paul praised as a “good Christian” and follower of Christ. I noted that he was a product of his culture, which widely accepted slavery, particularly as a form of paying off debts. Yet I also noted that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had a different view of human worth and dignity than the prevailing view of 1st century Greco-Roman culture. So we talked about “blind spots” caused by culture (then and now) and the way in which the Gospel of Christ can help us to confront, see, and change cultural perspectives we have taken for granted.
The second week we looked at the way Paul chose to communicate with Philemon. He had a true word to say and he had the authority to say it. So he could have ordered or commanded Philemon to do a certain thing. But he chose instead to ‘appeal’ to him, that he might understand and chose the Christ-like response. We talked some about our own communication of truth. It is not enough to be right; truth isn’t helpful if we speak it in a way that keeps people from hearing it! So we looked at 1 Corinthians 13 and the importance of speaking and acting godly truth IN LOVE. That’s what Paul models for us in his communication with Philemon.
Last week we looked more directly at the situation with Onesimus and we heard the contents of Paul’s appeal. He was appealing in the name of Christ for Philemon to receive and welcome Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a brother. In this we see a specific example and application of Paul’s teaching in Galatians that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free.” Paul appealed to Philemon to see beyond the cultural norm to a Kingdom perspective, and to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ. I asked you where your blind spots might be, noting the difficulty of seeing them without the aid of another, like those in the body of Christ or scripture itself. We talked about our cultural view of race, politics, and money as three likely areas where most of us have significant blind spots.
This week we wrap up the letter and find a few additional details to the main appeal from last week. These fall into two main areas: a further word on dignity and a living example of reconciliation by Paul.
A Further Word on Dignity (v. 17)
So we talked the last few weeks about dignity – that the Gospel of Jesus Christ removes the distinctions and disadvantages imposed by culture on race, gender, and economic status (slave/free). Said more strongly, the Gospel RESTORES God’s creation intent. God created humanity male and female, together in the image of God. When I say there is no distinction, it is not that the Gospel says there is no such thing as gender, but that the cultural advantages and disadvantages assigned to men and women are not part of God’s design. Both male and female are in the image of God and that affords men and women dignity that is often denied or overlooked in our culture.
So it is or SHOULD BE with race; so it is or SHOULD BE with economic status, which is how I’m translating 1st century slavery for us today. The Gospel of Jesus Christ removes cultural distinctions and restores God’s intent: that there is as much inherent dignity in a person of color as in a white person, that there is as much inherent dignity in someone who is in debt or impoverished as in someone who is financially well-off. And that’s our Philemonic blind spot today… of course it is the polite thing to say that everyone is equal and we are color-blind, but it doesn’t take much looking to find out that reality is otherwise. And here’s an important distinction: just as the Gospel doesn’t erase male and female, but lifts them up boldly to say male AND female, God made them in his image; so also the Gospel doesn’t call us to be color-blind or economic-blind, but to see clearly the wide, beautiful range of hue and pigment, of language and heritage, of prosperity and struggle and say, God made us and claims us and loves us and calls us. That’s godly dignity!
The Gospel doesn’t call us to be color-blind or economic-blind, but to see clearly the wide, beautiful range of hue and pigment, of language and heritage, of prosperity and struggle and say, God made us and claims us and loves us and calls us. That’s godly dignity!
Paul has already made the appeal to Philemon to receive Onesimus as brother, not slave. But he goes a step further as if to make sure Philemon really understands. He doesn’t just want forgiveness, but a new relationship entirely. He writes, “If you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.” Onesimus has been ministering to Paul as he waits in prison. Onesimus not only has DIGNITY, he has a God-given CALLING and PURPOSE. Again, God made him and claims him and loves him and calls him. And Paul wants Philemon to see that! What started as seeing past a cultural blind spot is (potentially) opening up into a whole new outlook. Don’t just welcome him as a brother; welcome him as a partner in ministry!
A Model of Reconciliation (v. 18)
And then Paul does something remarkable (and interesting). He recognizes that there is a debt still to be paid. He could have just asked (or commanded) Philemon to forgive it, but instead he offers to pay the debt himself. Why would he do that, especially when it is not necessary? I think it was for two reasons. One is so that no legal case could be brought against Onesimus by anyone (not that Philemon would). Paul wanted him to be free and clear in the earthly sense as well as in the spiritual sense.
But a second, more significant reason is that I think Paul was offering Philemon and Onesimus (and us because we are reading) a living example of what Christ has done for us. Our second scripture reading today, from 2 Corinthians 5, not only describes WHO we are in Christ – a new creature – but also HOW Christ accomplished that. At least it explains it to the extent that human language and imagery can do so. Verse 18 says: “[God] reconciled us to Himself through Christ.” And in v. 19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them…” But God did not just wave off the debt or the trespasses. Christ PAID the debt on our behalf on the cross. Because of what Jesus did, we are reconciled to God. And that is both a literal ‘reconciliation’ or paying of debts and it is a spiritual/relational ‘reconciliation’ which restores right standing between two people.
Paul is doing something similar, I think, to illustrate and remind Philemon, Onesimus, and us of what Christ did. So Paul offers to pay any outstanding debt, to literally reconcile the account between the two men. But in doing so he is also restoring right standing between the two men, as equals and as brothers in Christ. Paul is, himself, engaging in a ministry of reconciliation, just as he tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 is God’s intent for us: “[God] reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.”
So, as challenging and stretching as these scriptures are to us in terms of becoming aware of our “blind spots” and taking a good, hard Kingdom look at them in the light of the Gospel of Christ and God’s Word, God want even more. He wants us to not just see where culture has blinded us, but to take the word of the Kingdom into culture. In the case of race, not only are we challenged to see where culture has blinded and misled us, but we are to do something about it and take up the ministry of reconciliation… with God’s help!
Closing Remarks (vv. 19-25)
Paul has a few final remarks. He reaffirms his confidence in Philemon to do the right thing in obedience to the Lord. Paul even says, “I know you will do even more than what I say.” (v. 21) He also greets other fellow-workers and sends word from others, like him, who are imprisoned.
And then there’s one of my favorite asides because a good college friend used to say this to me all the time. After Paul says, “I will repay any debt… look you can even see it’s my own handwriting” he adds “not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self.” My friend used to quote that if we’d be out at Waffle House and he forgot any money. I’d offer to pay and he’d respond, “What is that when you owe me your very life?” I’d think, “Well, it’s another $3.50 out of my pocket” but I instinctively understood this strange saying… we were close friends and brothers in Christ. On one level I cared about the money; I didn’t have a ton of it as a college student. On the other hand, I’d literally give my life for him; what was another bacon and egg biscuit in light of that? Little did I know that line came from Philemon. I discovered it years later. Paul is reminding Philemon of the perspective of the Gospel. Yes, his neighbor or even the voice in his head might say, “Wait, you aren’t getting what you were owed from Onesimus.” But Paul is reminding him of just how much more he owed God that was forgiven and paid by Christ, just how much he owed Paul for leading him to the Lord.
It is so easy for culture to whisper and get our attention back off of God’s Kingdom and the values of God’s Kingdom… to whisper how much we need the money or how the races have reason to distrust one another or whatever else lies in our blind spot. But the Gospel re-centers us; Christ DIED to reconcile us to God and make us new creations all over again, to restore our dignity and purpose and calling. That calling is to extend the grace God has shown us to those we encounter, to have a ministry of reconciliation in this world. May God help us see and hear and trust and follow. Amen.